Libs re-emerge to a changed landscape

Monday, 15 September 2008 

If Brendan Grylls was really vacillating just as a political manoeuvre to get a better deal from the WA Liberals, it seemed a very destabilising way of doing it. It came at the cost of the Nationals looking all over the place for a week at the federal level with the party’s leader making an extraordinary public plea for the WA party ‘not to do it’ after initially hailing Grylls’ bargaining as a good idea.

It would seem fair enough that, as Grylls said, the decision was not unanimous. However, the reason cited for the decision, that a Lab-Nats pact would leave it at the mercy of the Greens in the Upper House, was probably more one that they could all publicly agree on rather than the real reason. As seems to have been forgotten, the Nationals received their warning in Lyne just a week ago that their core base was melting away and that they need to do something, prompting Truss’s 24 hour thought bubble of leaving the coalition. In WA, it is unlikely that without Grylls being able to get all of his MPs on side to join Labor, he risked splitting the state party. The Nationals remain torn between becoming an independent party and a party of Independents.

The Nationals problem is not some demographic phenomenon of sun-seekers retiring on the NSW coast but a political one. They are the most obvious victims of an unravelling of the old two party system that is affecting all of the parties. Having already experienced this unravelling with the reluctant endorsement of his former coalition partners, Barnett now must deal with it in a very different political environment than that faced by the last Liberal state leader six years ago.

The immediate reaction of the press is that a lone Liberal Premier will now create problems for Rudd’s federalism, which seems to be based on the sophisticated premise that it relied on nothing more than a unanimity of Labor leaders. But this looks at it upside down. Over the last two decades we have witnessed a depoliticising of state politics into it being about little more than public services provision. That may tend to favour Labor, but creates problems for them as well. An erosion of political authority at the state level was what Howard tried to take advantage of last year and what led the states to look to Rudd to take the responsibility of state services off their hands and to let the buck stop with him. It was less a case that Rudd’s federalism relied on there being all Labor Premiers, than the political conditions that tended to favour Labor at the state level but undermine them as well.

It is hard to see how Barnett will turn that around even leaving aside the narrowness of his win and the hesitance of the Nationals in helping him get there. The Australian’s Jennifer Hewett thinks Barnett’s canal idea makes him a big ideas man, while forgetting why he had to drop it in this campaign. Everyone may complain that politicians don’t present any grand visions, but without political authority, they look out to lunch if they do. The Liberals, like Labor, ran an entirely negative campaign. Labor’s lost because theirs seem mainly focussed on the wrong leader (the previous one) and in the brief period of bliss that greets even a recycled leader, the Liberals didn’t look that bad. But there is nothing there to launch a political challenge from.

Without such a political basis for taking on the federal government, Barnett ought to tread carefully. As we are already seeing in the Senate, being obstructionist without any political justification for doing so leads the Liberals open to the charge of just playing politics for its own sake, which this Prime Minster is well used to exploiting. Barnett’s relative inflexibility in dealing with the Nationals over the last week compared to Carpenter, shows that he is not yet in tune with the shifting rules of this new game as much as Labor. There is no doubt, for example, that when COAG next meets in WA in a fortnight that Rudd will go out of his way to embrace Barnett with the same anti-political bear hug that Carpenter tried on the Nationals, but possibly with more success.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 15 September 2008.

Filed under State and federal politics

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